Category Archives: Tribe

Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it. Continue reading

Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading

A Heart of Many Rooms

Min hameitzar karati Yah – Anani Bamerchav Yah.
I called to Yah in dire straits; Yah answered me from a spacious place.

It’s hard to imagine more dire straits than those in which Abraham and Isaac found themselves in that moment before the angel intervened. Isaac bound on the altar, Abraham with the knife in hand, the task before him crystal-clear. “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as an offering.” Isaac, as our tradition has it, was a willing sacrifice, his single-minded commitment to the cause of obedience to God’s command a perfect match for his father’s. The fourteenth-century teacher Bachya ben Asher is representative: “At first, Isaac didn’t know that he was to be the sacrifice. But…we learn he was at peace with the matter. The two walked on together, with the same intent. One to slaughter, and the other to be slaughtered.”

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This is a d’var torah about finding a shared purpose and walking together, even down difficult paths. It’s about friendship, and it’s about conflict. But the good kind of conflict. Yes, there’s a good kind of conflict. Let’s start there. Continue reading

Tamid. Tamid. Tamid.

Caring Community Shabbat, May 20, 2016.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” So wrote Paul Kalanithi, a young father, a physician, and the victim of an aggressive form of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s journey is chronicled in a powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously earlier this year. Face to face with his own mortality, he recognized that, while some tasks can never be fully accomplished, the striving never ceases. Rabbi Tarfon said it well, in the pages of Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the job; neither are you free to desist from it.” Continue reading

Double Standards: Too High and Too Low

A recent guest column in the Chapel Hill News, prompted by the visit to Chapel Hill Town Council of an Israeli legislative delegation, concluded with an acknowledgment that there are Jewish groups both the United States and Israel which are committed to bringing about peace and justice for Palestinians. Unfortunately, the tortured path the columnist took to arrive at that conclusion is a lesson in how not to advance those goals. Continue reading

Counting our Days

My column for the upcoming May-June bulletin, posted now as we begin the counting. Today is One Day of the Omer.

For much of the period covered by this issue of our synagogue bulletin, Jews will be engaged in a practice called sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the sheaf.” Not a useful translation for conveying much meaning, I know. The practice is based on these verses from Torah:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal One for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath…and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering– the day after the sabbath– you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week– fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One (Lev 23:9-11;15-16).

While nearly two millennia have passed since the days when offerings of grain were our mode of worship, we still “count the omer,” memorializing the ancient practice.

Counting the omer is a reminder of our history, and it is much more. By counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we do a number of things.

First, counting links the two festivals together. Shavuot, which celebrates the giving and receiving of Torah, only makes sense in the context of our liberation from Egypt; our liberation can best be understood as setting down avdut, slavery, in order to enter a covenant of avodah, service. The Rabbis creatively played with the Hebrew word for “engraved” (as in the words on the tablets), charut, reading it as cheyrut, “freedom.” To their minds, freedom is not a free-for-all, but disciplined choice. Pesach and Shavuot: you can’t have one without the other.

Next, counting reinforces a sense of forward motion from one holiday to the next. I wrote two months ago about the broad sweep of this holiday season, beginning at Purim and ending with Shavuot. From Pesach to Shavuot, that sweep is explicit: “One….two….three…” Along the way we encounter the seventh day of Pesach, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the State of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and an ancient festival that falls on day thirty-three.

In my experience, the period of the sefirah is, most of all, an opportunity to cultivate awareness. Each night as dusk falls (or, if we’re regular davveners, as part of the evening service), we stop and take notice of the passage of time. We recite a blessing, and take note of the number of days that have passed since Pesach. If the omer period is about linking the festivals and propelling us forward, the moment of counting is about slowing us down. “Teach us to number our days; let us cultivate hearts of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“Always Public, Never Partisan: Kosher and Treif Politics at Shul”

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.

The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.

Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.” Continue reading

Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading

Reflections on the Detroit Debate: finding each other’s faces again

Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox. Continue reading

Honoring our Holy Chevrei

Our Tradition (BT Sotah 14a) records the teaching of Rabbi Chamma, the son of Rabbi Chaninah on the verse from the book of Deuteronomy (13:5), “Follow Adonai your God, revere God, keep the commandments and obey God’s voice; this is how to serve God and hold fast to the divine.” Rabbi Chamma quotes the verse and then asks the question, “what does it mean to follow God? Can a human being actually follow the Divine Presence?” His answer is that “follow” is a metaphor for “emulate.” Read the text, and see what God does in its stories. Then, go out and do those things. Continue reading